How whistleblowers went from being viewed as snitches to people who help enforce laws and safeguard our society

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The 15th annual Women in Law Conference will take place at Northeastern University on Friday, May 5, with pre-conference festivities happening on the evening of Thursday, May 4. 

Headshot of Siri Nelson
Siri Nelson. Courtesy photo

The conference includes special guest speaker Melanne Verveer, the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. 

Another feature presentation is by Dahlia Lithwick, the author of “Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America.” Litwick is a senior editor at Slate and has written about the Supreme Court since 1999.

The central panel will discuss how to move forward following recent backlashes in reproductive, voting and LGBTQ+ rights. 

Ahead of the event, Northeastern Global News sat down with Siri Nelson, one of the conference chairs, to discuss her journey and advocacy for whistleblowers. Siri Nelson is the executive director of the National Whistleblower Center and president of the United Women in Business national chapter. 

Nelson’s comments have been edited to add context, and for brevity and clarity.

How did you get to where you are today?

I grew up in New York City in the Bronx. I attended the College of New Rochelle, and then I went to law school at Northeastern. When I was admitted to Northeastern, I got information about the Women in Law Conference and attended it before I started classes. That was in 2017. I went, and it was so much fun. 

While I was at law school, I helped organize and lead a conference in response to President Trump’s election – which led to a lack of morale and emotional reactions and people not knowing what to do. I was also the chair of SBA, the student bar association, which was at a critical time because we were transitioning deans.

I was the commencement speaker for the class and was in the Huntington 100. During the last semester of classes, I took a whistleblower law class with Stephen Kohn. I just fell in love with the subject matter. I liked how Steve taught, and I liked how he highlighted that you could do a good thing without having to be poor. He talks about how whistleblower law works, how their statutory legal needs and how the reward programs enable attorneys to get paid when their clients are successful. 

Knowing that I could do global work and also get paid for it made me want to go into the whistleblower area. 

After I graduated, I had the Estelle S. Kohn Memorial Fellow at the Kohn, Kohn, and Colapinto (the nation’s leading whistleblower law office). 

Right before the (COVID-19) shutdowns, we focused on Securities and Exchange Commission regulations to help them understand how their rules affected whistleblowers. We succeeded in getting all commissioners to support whistleblowers in a bipartisan way. That success led to my appointment as executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, which I’ve been doing for two years and absolutely love.

Can you define what a whistleblower is?

A whistleblower is a person who reports a violation of law, rule or regulation to the appropriate authorities (of their own volition). And that all is a very legally defined statement. Each one has its own sub-legal. So what’s allowed? What’s the role of regulation? What’s the violation? Who are the appropriate authorities? 

And so when you have folks who report to the media, for example, the question of whether or not that report is appropriate authority becomes a major legal issue. Right now, we’re working on tech industry workers being silenced using NDAs that misled them to believe that they cannot communicate with anybody about their concerns. And then, ultimately, they go to the media because they feel no one else will listen. And they feel like if I’m going to violate my NDA, I might as well do it in a way that I know will happen at impact. 

But one of our biggest missions is to make sure those people know they can go to the appropriate authorities, which are the SEC, the IRS, and the CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission). And NDAs do not prevent people from communicating with the government. And we’re trying to help make sure that these companies are being held accountable for these illegal NDAs. But it’s a long fight. We’ve been fighting it since the organization’s beginning. 

Can you speak about the impact the National Whistleblower Center has?

The National Whistleblower Center has a very broad reach. We have over 200,000 subscribers to our mailing list. We have made incredible inroads for whistleblowers worldwide because we work transnationally. So we work with countries throughout Europe, and we work with officials in Africa. We’ve worked with officials in Asia and connected with South Korean officials. For example, yesterday, I spoke to a group of Estonian prosecutors. We strive to ensure that people worldwide know their rights to blow the whistle and the transnational impacts of U.S. laws. Since 1988, we have had a radical impact on the perceptions of whistleblowers.

So in 1988, there weren’t laws the way there are now. There weren’t as many formalized whistleblower programs. 

We’ve seen whistleblowers go from being viewed as snitches, you know, whistleblowers are the problem, to whistleblowers being viewed as enforcement assets, as a source of great tips and as people who safeguard our society. So, of course, there’s still a lot of space for growth. We still, especially on an individual level, need to help people feel more comfortable with whistleblowing. But there’s been a lot of progress, and there will continue to be, especially because we have growing support.

What’s next for the National Whistleblower Center?

My passion is raising awareness about whistleblowers and getting people in the general public to understand the value of whistleblowing. So since I became executive director, we’ve seen a lot of improvements to (National Whistleblower Center) communications.

The hope is that we can start helping people understand whistleblowers in the context of the rule of law and human rights.

Whistleblowers safeguard everything that matters to us and are the key to our democracy. If we all agree on certain rules, and there’s no one to make sure those rules are followed, then the rules don’t matter. And when the rules don’t matter, we can’t have democracy and the rule of law. And without democracy and the rule of law, we don’t have fairness. And we don’t have human rights. And we definitely don’t have economic equality.

What impact does your class, whistleblower law, which you are teaching this summer, have on students?

A lot of times, students come in with their preconceptions. Some of them have related work experience or have family members that have. So there’s a great diversity of perspectives that come into our classroom. And then we’re able to flesh out a lot of their thoughts about whistleblowing. 

And, our goal is to create a cohort of students by the end of the semester who at least that they are confronted with a whistleblower tip, know a little bit better how to deal with it and can tell, you know, the whistleblower or tell their supervisor hey, listen, I took this class, and I know that this is what we should do. And this is what the law at least has some reference point for. So I think we’ve been fairly successful with that.

What are you most looking forward to at the conference? 

It’s just an incredible experience every year. So I’m looking forward to the community coming back together and hearing from the incredible women that have agreed to participate. 

And one of the things we built out around is the concept of backlash because we’re also mad about what’s going on with women’s rights being rolled back. And it’s so sick that we’ve made such great progress to… see rights being rolled back. 

This is a chance for us to come together and join forces that would, as women and vying for, at least, get some common understanding among us and fight the backlash because without us coming together, our rights will be taken away. And it’s worth it.

Beth Treffeisen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beth_treffeisen.